Reading a historically-accurate and brutally-honest account of Christopher Columbus’ “discovering” of America for the first time as a high school junior was a jarring experience. I had grown up singing “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” with my kindergarten classmates, reading about all of the heroic explorers who “discovered” the Americas, and conjuring up visions of friendly, peaceful Thanksgiving dinners shared by European explorers and indigenous Americans. This account of Columbus – one of genocide, conquest and slavery – was not a pleasant story. And I loved it. I was grateful that my teacher had exposed my classmates and me to this text – Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States – as a way to augment our textbook, spark our thinking, and broaden our perspectives. Reading the text made me question why no one had ever shared the full story about Columbus and why we still celebrate him each year (some cities are now opting to celebrate indigenous people on that day instead). It also made me question which other parts of our history have been revised over time to eliminate important facts and perspectives. As an adult, I have come to value deep examination of history as a roadmap for our current systems and structures – an interest that was undoubtedly sparked in Mrs. Williams’ classroom.
Many of our students do not get an opportunity to develop a deeper, fuller understanding of our society by truly engaging with our history. Oftentimes textbooks tell a revised version of history that marginalizes oppressed people, eliminates important perspectives and perpetuates a more comfortable version of difficult moments in our past. In fact, just this week a Texas 9th grader and his mother made the news when they Tweeted out an image from a textbook that describes the Atlantic Slave Trade as helping bring “millions of workers from Africa” to work on southern plantations. The notion of describing enslaved people as “workers” – individuals who have freedom and receive wages for their employment – is problematic at best, and incredibly offensive to many. If our history informs who we are and our present condition as a people, how can we know ourselves and authentically shape our future if we don’t know our true history?
Utilizing a culturally-relevant curriculum – one that empowers students to relate the content to their cultural context – is an important way for educators to create a more inclusive classroom environment and richer learning experiences for their students. It enables students to see their own unique identity and history in the classroom while also creating opportunities for students to learn about each other across lines of difference. Implementing a culturally-relevant curriculum requires intentional effort from educators – to include multiple perspectives and cultures in their instruction, recognize and address their own biases, and to give students more freedom and responsibility in their learning. This approach to teaching and learning benefits all students and creates citizens who are grounded in their own history and positive identity and who are able to work effectively with others in a multicultural world – critical skills our children need in order to shape a better future. Getting there requires us to honestly and courageously tell the whole story when we engage with our history, even when it’s jarring or uncomfortable – our students deserve it!